We are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson
(Simon & Schuster Pulse, Hardcover, 464 pp. $17.99)
Reviewed by Daniel Santos
“If you knew the world were ending, and you had the chance to stop it, would you?” This is a question repeatedly asked by Henry Denton in Shaun David Hutchinson’s new YA novel We are the Ants. The question might seem to be easy to answer, and it is for most people Henry asks in the novel, but such questions are only easy to answer when they are rhetorical. To Henry, this question is far from rhetorical.
Henry is an extremely troubled teen in Calypso, Florida. Ever since he was a young boy he has repeatedly been abducted by aliens. Very few believe him. His father left shortly after his first abduction. His brother is an asshole. His mother doesn’t care anymore. His boyfriend, Jesse, recently committed suicide. And he is brutally picked on at school by Marcus McCoy—who also happens to be his secret lover.
On top of all of this, aliens that highly resemble giant slugs have now advised him that the world is going to end on January 29, 2016, and that he can stop it from happening. All Henry has to do is press a button. It’s as easy as that. However, to Henry, it’s just as easy not to press the button at all.
Shortly after Henry has first been presented with the chance to save the world, he contemplates the choice he has so far made:
I don’t know why I didn’t press the button for real when I had the chance other than that I don’t think the aliens would have given me such a long lead time if they hadn’t wanted me to consider my choice carefully. Most people probably believe they would have pressed the button in my situation—nobody wants the world to end, right?—but the truth is that nothing is as simple as it seems. Turn on the news; read some blogs. The world is a shit hole, and I have to consider whether it might be better to wipe the slate clean and give the civilization that evolves from the ashes of our bones a chance to get it right.
While this novel might seem at first glance to be science fiction, it is not. This is a novel about a teenager struggling to survive in a world where there is little good. All Henry ever experiences is the bad in humanity. He doesn’t believe mankind deserves to live because the only thing that he ever knew that was good, Jesse, is dead.
While We Are the Ants is set in Florida, it could have been set anywhere in the United States without having too much of an effect on the novel. Instead, Hutchinson, whose previous books for teens include The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley, focuses on the struggles of his characters.
Readers interested in issues concerning bullying, depression, and the LGBT community will find this book to be very interesting. It is not for the faint of heart, but it’s not for the heartless either.
Born in the not so mystical land of Miami, FL, Daniel Santos is an avid reader and writer of science-fiction and fantasy. He is a student at Florida International University.
Skink No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen
(Knopf, Hardcover, 288 pp., $19.99)
Reviewed by Ed Irvin
On the opening page of Skink No Surrender, Carl Hiaasen's first foray into the world of young adult fiction, fourteen year-old Richard is walking Loggerhead Beach, waiting for his cousin, Malley, so they may look for the nesting turtles after which their coastal Florida town in named. The always punctual Malley is two hours late, and although it isn't unusual for Malley to be grounded as a result of her rebellious streak, it is odd for her not to contact Richard and let him know when she's on lockdown. So Richard continues his walk, and his wait, by looking for new nests of which to report to authorities, who will then rope them off from nosy or clueless beachgoers.
When Richard approaches an odd-looking mound of sand, what emerges is far scarier than a protective mother sea turtle. It's Hiaasen's beloved one-eyed, shower cap-wearing psychotic ex-governor, Skink, who's waiting for someone, too. A turtle egg poacher.
His fear overmatched by curiosity, Richard presses on with Skink, seeking to learn more about the man.
"The name's Clint Tyree," he told me, "although I haven't answered to it in years. Good night, now."
For Richard, whose own father died in a freak skateboarding accident, curiosity becomes kind of a cautious admiration.
Malley, it turns out, has run away with Talbo Chock, an internet love interest, to avoid being sent to a boarding school in New Hampshire, which is where her parents believe she is. Suspicious, Richard returns to Google and discovers that Talbo Chock was a United States Marine killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, meaning Malley doesn't really know who she's run away with.
Richard enlists Skink's help, and together they set off in search of Malley.
I'll be honest, when I read Skink's name in conjunction with "young adult" I was skeptical. Putting Skink in a YA novel is akin to replacing Charles Ingalls with Hannibal Lecter in Little House on the Prairie. It works, though. To the audience for whom the book is written I imagine the allusions to foul language are chuckle-worthy, such as when the man pretending to be Talbo Chock escapes Skink's grasp:
"Hell," said Skink, and a whole lot more.
Meanwhile for the adults reading Skink No Surrender, the allusions only add to the scene by prompting the use of imagination.
And like Mr. Miyagi and Daniel in The Karate Kid, the student-teacher dynamic between Skink and Richard is a two-way street. Richard learns from Skink about life in general, such as the lifelong burden of guilt Richard will carry if he doesn't pay for the skateboard—the exact model his father was on when he was killed—he stole from a surf shop in Saint Augustine:
"Go back to that store and pay the gentleman for his merchandise. This isn't just a piece of grandfatherly advice, Richard. It's a moral instruction."
In turn, Skink learns current expressions from Richard:
"He was the son of a Swiss watchmaker, swear to God. You should goggle him on your computer."
There are supporting characters in Skink No Surrender whose roles are far too small given how great they are in the little print they have. Gar-fishers Nickel and brother Dime, as well as their not-seen sister, Penny, play a key role in helping Richard in his quest to rescue Malley. Let's hope Hiaasen is saving them for later returns.
Skink No Surrender is what Hiaasen must write before drinking his morning coffee. It's Skink decaffeinated, but it's still Skink. Yes, adult readers will see some of the jokes—such as the goggle/Google one—coming a mile away, but you're not the target audience. While adults may sigh and say "Saw that coming," tweeners may chuckle, roll their eyes, and say "Typical, clueless grown up." It's occasionally a laugh-out-loud, or LOL, as Richard would say, tale of misadventure. But, at times, it is a very touching coming-of-age tale worthy of the National Book Award for which it was recently long-listed.
Ed Irvin, a Florida Book Review Contributing Editor, lives and writes in Boynton Beach, FL.
Our most recent young adult reviews are on this page. For earlier ones, visit our young adult archive (coming soon!)
Five Ways to Fall by K.A. Tucker
(Atria, Paperback, 384 pp., $15)
Reviewed by Jennifer Maritza McCauley
You probably shouldn’t give K.A. Tucker’s Five Ways to Fall to your grandmother. Although Five Ways to Fall, the final installment of the Ten Tiny Breaths series, is marketed as young adult fiction, most of the characters are in their early-twenties. The characters swear, lie, visit strip clubs, gleefully peel off their clothes and have sex in a variety of places. They aren’t your model youths. They also fall in and out of love, handle heartbreak terribly, and struggle with death and divorce. Tucker’s characters are real, imperfect young adults. Tucker’s Five Ways to Fall is both an escapist romance and an accurate snapshot of youth culture.
Five Ways to Fall takes place in present-day Miami, Florida. The novel is told in the alternating voices of Reese, a purple-haired paralegal at a Miami law firm, and Ben, a former bouncer and lawyer working at the same office. Reese is a self-proclaimed “slob . . . and certifiable bitch,” with a motorcycle, a foul mouth, and a history of run-ins with the law. At the beginning of the book, the twenty-year old Reese is still mourning her ex-husband, a man who cheated on her with his childhood love. Reese has a botched one-night stand with Ben to get over her loss, but the two forget each other quickly. A few months later, Ben and Reese end up working in the same office, and are thrown together to work on various projects. Shortly afterward, Reese sees her ex-husband again, with his new wife. As the book goes on, Reese clashes with her ex-husband and grapples with her unresolved feelings for him. The charismatic Ben offers to play Reese’s “pretend boyfriend” after Reese is humiliated by Caroline, her ex-husband’s new wife. As Reese gets closer to Ben, she realizes that Ben might be the better match.
Reese is a pleasurable character to follow. She’s the smartest paralegal at the job but a poor student, she’s heart-hardened but sensitive to emotional pain, she’s resistant to love but secretly yearns for romantic fulfilment. Reese’s contradictions add to her believability. The character isn’t the cookie-cutter “good girl” found often in romantic fiction. She has impulsive sex, and will readily seek revenge on those who have harmed her. Reese also responds to uncomfortable situations with snark and sass. When Reese is confronted by Caroline in the bathroom of a club, Caroline grabs Reese and says, “What are you doing here?” Reese responds, “Right now I’m washing my hands.” Reese then gestures to the toilet and says, “Do you want know what I just did in there?”
Reese can also be manipulative. She actively plots to get back at her cheating ex-husband to alleviate “the nasty swirls of hurt that [had encased her] for months.” She orchestrates situations in which she can show off her “fake” boyfriend to her ex. In a different novel, Reese would be a petty and prideful villain. Reese’s motivations for revenge, however, make her quest for payback somewhat excusable. In the beginning of the book, Reese admits that she is struggling through a “crazy” period of her life, and that heartbreak is controlling her actions. She says,
. . . Does everyone have a moment of “crazy” in their life---when raw emotion runs over your common sense liken an eighteen-wheeler, compelling you to do and say things that make others stare . . . shake their head at you, wondering why you’re acting so foolishly, why you won’t let go . . . Perhaps when I figure out how to pick myself back up again I’ll laugh at this.
Reese is the badass many readers wish they could be, and she battles relatable feelings of hurt and loss. Reese is a fully realized character, equipped with faults and charm.
Ben, Reese’s love interest, is a “type” that appears often in the young adult and romance genre. He’s a “blonde with a big obnoxious grin”, and a proud lothario with a breezy sense of humor. In many romance novels, Ben would be “tamed” by Reese, or drawn to her innocence. In Five Ways to Fall, however, Ben likes Reese because she’s edgy, blasé and bold. Ben admits, “Reese doesn’t give a f*** . . . and she’s sexier because of it . . . ” Reese and Ben match each other: they are sexually driven, funny and fearless characters. As Reese says of Ben,
Ben has wormed his obnoxious self into my heart…The scariest thing is that he does it by being himself…He doesn’t hide who he is and he doesn’t lie or promise anything, he doesn’t play stupid head games.
While Reese and Ben’s coupling isn’t as much surprising as it is expected in this novel, the characters are entertaining enough that readers will enjoy rooting for them.
Five Ways to Fall is an unapologetic beach read. Tucker knows what her readers want: juicy drama, fiery romance and fun. Tucker, fortunately, delivers. The novel also has well-developed characters who live and work in a believable setting. Tucker’s Miami is full of clubbing and office politics, late-night pool parties and paperwork. The characters are selfish, loving, and make mistakes in romance and in their careers. Five Ways to Fall is a delightful read that realistically portrays young adults in the transitional periods of their lives.
Jennifer Maritza McCauley was raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and is a graduate student in fiction at Florida International University.